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The fallout of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner's remarks on Black, women musicians

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Jann Wenner has apologized for remarks he made in a New York Times story where he defended his choice to only interview white, male rock stars for his upcoming book. The Times released audio of his remarks. They include this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANN WENNER: Insofar as the women, I mean, there were just - none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.

SUMMERS: He also said some Black musicians, quote, "didn't articulate at that level." The remarks brought significant backlash over the weekend, including Wenner's removal from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, a charity that he helped to found. NPR's Eric Deggans is here with more on the fallout. Hi, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: All right. So timeline - Eric, these remarks were published on Friday. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation's dismissal of Wenner and his apology came quickly on Saturday. What do you think has made this controversy keep going?

DEGGANS: I think it's because Wenner revealed a deeper issue than just dismissing the ability of genius-level Black and female artists to speak articulately about their work. I mean, his larger point, even in his apology, is that he wanted to include in this book, which is called "The Masters," people he felt articulated the spirit of rock 'n' roll and its impact on the world. So he's not just saying he felt these artists couldn't be articulate. He's also saying their art didn't speak to the way that rock 'n' roll has changed the world, which - when you look at the impact of artists ranging from Joni Mitchell and Madonna to Jimi Hendrix and Prince, it just doesn't make any sense. I mean, we've got another clip from The New York Times interview. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WENNER: Joni was not a philosopher of rock 'n' roll. She didn't, in my mind, meet that test - not by her work, not by other interviews she did.

DEGGANS: And even the interviewer scoffed at that notion.

SUMMERS: OK. Rolling Stone magazine has released a statement saying that Wenner has not worked directly at the magazine since 2019 and that his statements - I'm quoting here - "do not represent the values and practices of today's Rolling Stone." So given that, why do so many people care so much about what he has to say now and what is included in this book?

DEGGANS: Well, I think Wenner's attitude seems to sum up the way that gatekeepers in the music and music journalism industry downplayed, trivialized and disregarded the work of non-white and female artists for decades. I mean, Wenner helped define what we now view as classic rock 'n' roll, and we now see the sensibilities that helped shape those choices. It was so interesting to watch social media reaction from people who used to work in magazines like The Source and Vibe, saying that those magazines were founded in part because of the feeling that Rolling Stone and other parts of the music press weren't doing enough to cover Black artists, especially in hip-hop. I mean, I remember back in the 1990s, I was working as a music critic. I felt that way. I even wrote for a small magazine called Rocker Girl to help counter sexism in the mainstream music press. So as somebody who suspected these issues were at play, like, decades ago, it means something to hear that one of rock's biggest gatekeepers is admitting it even now.

SUMMERS: I mean, and, Eric, Wenner has been at the center of some controversy surrounding the nomination of artists to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And critics have said that non-musicians like him have had too much control over the years, allowing their personal tastes and their friendships to affect the nomination process. Do those controversies rise up again because of these comments?

DEGGANS: I think so. I mean, when you see Wenner admit during The New York Times interview that his friendships with the artists he's interviewing are important and he let people like John Lennon edit their own interviews with the magazine, it paints this picture of a cultural gatekeeper who's judging artists in part by how friendly he is with them. And that leads to questioning other past decisions. I mean, in the end, this interview pulled us all back to the bad old days when a much smaller group of publications controlled the discourse about pop music. And there was always a sense that some of the baby boomers who control those publications had some serious biases.

SUMMERS: I mean, Eric, crystal ball time. What do you think the future holds for Jann Wenner as an influencer and with this book?

DEGGANS: Well, in my perfect world, the publishers would make him go back and include women and people of color. Frankly, they never should have OK'd the book in the first place the way it is. At least now, everybody knows exactly why it is the way it is, and they can judge Wenner's legacy accordingly.

SUMMERS: That is NPR's Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks, as always.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF YAYA BEY SONG, "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.